Behavioral Health
3:30 am
Wed March 26, 2014

Faced With Daunting Medical Expenses, Some Turn To Crowdfunding

Montana Delciello and her mother Melissa Jones are raising money for a psychiatric dog for Montana on Gofundme.com
Credit Ryan Loew / 90.5 WESA

Medical care is costly, and for many people that cost is prohibitive. More and more often, people like Melissa Jones find themselves turning to crowdfunding to pay for those extras health insurance won't cover.

Walking down Fifth Avenue in Oakland, Jones' 10-year-old daughter Montana Delciello describes it as a full-on sensory experience. The sidewalks swell with people as bikes, cars, buses and ambulances weave in and out of lanes on the massive street.

"Like theres a lot of cars coming by and there is a big dent in the bars so I kind of panic that a car is going to hit me," Montana said. "My mind will start to be racing and I’ll start to sweat even if its really cold out that’s what it feels like for me." 

As she walks up and down Fifth Avenue she says that for her, the scene is especially hectic — and has caused panic attacks.  

Montana spends a lot of time with doctors in Oakland because of her diagnoses — bipolar disorder, separation anxiety disorder and Tourette syndrome. She’s already on medications including Lithium and Abilify. When Montana started withdrawing from activities with friends and having panic attacks even at home in Whitehall Borough, her mother Melissa Jones went looking for something else that would help.

"I knew that there had to be some sort of a solution, besides medication that could help her with her anxiety, and I did some research and discovered that psychiatric service dogs existed," Jones said. "I didn’t know that was an option."

Montana, an animal lover who wants to be a veterinarian, immediately warmed to the idea of a dog who would read her panic, comfort her and remind her when its time to take her medication.

"It would help me with my anxiety, because if I was out in public and it was crowded and I would feel closed-in and the dog would come over and kind of like stay next to me and nod its head on my hand and I could pet him to like take my anxiety away," Montana said. 

But while all of Montana’s health care is covered by her insurance — Social Security Disability — a psychiatric dog wouldn’t be. And the cost is $12,000.

"...Very, very expensive and most people don’t have that kind of money available so that’s what led me to doing some research trying to see how we can raise money," Jones said. "One of the first things I found was this sort of crowdsource funding through this website gofundme.com, so I said – lemme try." 

With her crowdfunding campaign, Jones joined thousands of others who have taken to Kickstarter-like sites to help pay for health care expenses. At GoFundMe, medical-related campaigns are one of their most popular.

Ethan Austin, president of Give Forward, another similar website that’s devoted to only medical care, said their first year they helped people raise $185,000. That was only a few years ago. Now to date they’ve helped people raise more than $90 million.

"For all the expenses that aren’t covered by insurance, things like travel to and from treatment, lost wages, your rent, your mortgage, all of the things that aren’t covered, all the things that put people at stress and doesn’t allow them to recover," he said. 

Austin says most of the sites utilizers are insured and are using it for that supplemental care. That goes in line with what the Health Care Cost Institute found. Their director of research, Carolina Herrera, said when they looked at the insured, they found that on average they were still paying quite a bit for medical expenses.

"Out of pocket, people paid about $768 per insured person last year for the medical and prescription services that the folks who had employer sponsored health insurance consumed, so it's about 16 percent of the health care bill was paid out of pocket," she said. 

A 2011 study from the National Bureau of Economic Research found that in the case of a medical emergency nearly half of all American adults wouldn’t be able to produce $2,000. They’d have to reach out to family and friends for help.

In essence, these sites help people such as Melissa Jones do that for her daughter — with her posting it on social media and emailing contacts near and far, it’s like a virtual passing of the hat.